Lutheran Worship: Why We Do What We Do

Pr. Chad L. Bird (St. Paul, Wellston, OK)
Texas Confessional Lutherans Free Conference
5 August 2000
(printable pdf, 18 pages, 210 KB)

I. Introduction: Hymnody and Orthodoxy

A confessional church is a singing church. As she sings, she makes her good confession, a confession both in word and music. As the sainted Martin Franzmann (1907–1976) once said, “Theology is doxology. Theology must sing.”(1) Theology cannot remain mute words safely bedded down between the covers of a book; it must leap off the printed page, exit the mouth, and fill the air with holy sound. Theology must be given a voice. The lips, not the pen, are the best instruments of theological expression. Although doctrinal books, commentaries, journals, and essays serve well as mediums of confession, they all play second fiddle to that which is articulated in the liturgy. The dogmatics of Francis Pieper must salute the hymns of Paul Gerhardt.

All of which is to say that the hearth and home of theology is the Divine Service. All true theology is restless until it finds its rest in liturgy, sermons, and hymnody. There the rubber meets the road. In that holy context the Bride of Christ is doing what she does best: hearing from and speaking to her heavenly Groom. And the words she speaks are God–words, nouns and verbs which cradle the divine presence. She confesses, chants, and sings the words God first planted in her ears. I have heard seminarians say that they learned as much (or more) theology in the daily chapel services as in the classroom or study. The same could be said by any layman who confesses the creeds, prays the liturgy, sings the hymns, and listens to the sermons in his congregation. As he does so, he is swimming in a lake of theology. So it is and so it should be. The Augsburg Confession, Article VII, says the one holy Christian church “is the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” The Una Sancta is thereby defined liturgically, as God’s children gathered around Gospel preaching and the holy sacraments of the Divine Service. Here theology is on home turf.

In a Psalm recounting how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, we read: “Then they believed His words; they sang His praise” (106:12). They believed, therefore they sang (cf. 2 Cor. 4:13). Faith and hymnody, belief and confession, go hand–in–glove. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks and sings. This, however, is a double–edged sword. The words uttered by the mouth are windows to the heart, revealing the orthodoxy or heterodoxy which resides therein. So if you wish to know the good, the bad, or the ugly confession of an individual or congregation, you might well begin by asking him or them to sing a dozen of their favorite hymns. The pastor’s quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions and the congregation’s formal membership in the LCMS mean little if the sermon hymn is, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” It doesn’t take a theological giant to see that what they have really decided to follow is something other than the path of orthodoxy.

Here it is helpful to remember that the primary meaning of orthodoxy is “right praise,” from the Greek orthos (right) and doxa (praise or glory). Only by extension does it mean “right doctrine.” The two, however, enjoy a mother–daughter relationship, for from doctrine’s womb the child of praise is borne. The ancient church used the following aphorism to say the same thing: Lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, the rule of prayer [constitutes] the rule of believing. That which the church speaks and sings in her liturgy is indicative and constitutive of what she confesses to be true — good or bad. Put your ear to a church’s mouth — not your nose in her books — and there she will tell you what she truly believes, not just what she claims to believe. It is no coincidence, therefore, that virtually all communions within Christendom have their own distinctive hymnody. This mirrors their theology. Nearly every schism within the church catholic has translated its falsehoods into rhythm and meter. Heresy cannot live long without hymnody. The songs perpetuate and inculcate the untruths which might otherwise die out in a single generation.

The question posed to us at this conference is: Why do we do what we do in Lutheran worship? Regarding Lutheran hymnody, we are asking: Why do we sing what we sing? The topic is of paramount importance due to the ongoing attacks upon the traditional music and hymnody of confessional Lutherans. The most recent squabbles within our Synod over the new African–American hymnal, This Far By Faith, are illustrative of the problems we face (see discussion below). In my own parish I’m often asked why we no longer sing those “traditional Lutheran hymns” such as “Amazing Grace,” “Just As I Am,” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” but instead these newfangled ones such as “We All Believe in One True God,” “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord,” and “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart.” (And I think such sentiments are found not only at my parish.) Many an LCMS congregation sings regularly from The Other Song Book or from a resource book of contemporary Christian music. The termites of heterodoxy are gnawing away at the foundations of our hymnody and they are not easily exterminated. It behooves us, therefore, to ask and examine why we sing what we sing as confessional Lutherans. If theology must sing — and it must — then we must sing the theology of the church catholic. Orthodoxy, by definition, demands it.

II. Hymnody in the Divine Service: Why We Sing What We Sing — Lutheran Worship: The Divine Service

No flip of the celestial coin determined whether the church was to be masculine or feminine. As Eve was created from the rib of Adam, so the New Eve — the Church — was created from the side of the New Adam — Jesus Christ — in the sacramental water and blood which issued forth in His crucifixion. The church receives life from the First Man of the new creation, and as such she is feminine. She receives life from Him who gives her His own life. She is bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. She is His body; He is her head. He loves her, His own flesh, and thus nourishes and cherishes her (Eph. 5:28–29). Lady Church is the bride who receives the love and life of her Husband, not once, not twice, but everlastingly. He fills her with His own fulness, making her body the temple of His Spirit. The imperishable seed of His word impregnates her (1 Peter 2:23), causing her to become the “mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God” (Large Catechism, Creed, Third Article, 42).

The church is ever receiving from Him who longs solely to give. Her liturgy is therefore a service of Christ for her, on her behalf. He who was incarnate for her, kept the law for her, died and rose for her, and constantly intercedes for her, always comes for her not for Himself. The second century church father, St. Ireneaus of Lyons, once wrote, “God created man in order that He might have someone upon whom to bestow His blessings” (Adv. Haer. IV.14.4). He could well have been speaking of the church, for God also created her in order that He might have someone upon whom to bestow His blessings. In the Small Catechism, we confess: “In the same way [the Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” The church is on the receiving end of divine gifts; the actions are performed upon her.

In the mother tongue, therefore, Lutherans called their liturgy Gottesdienst, which shifts nicely into English as Divine Service, with the understanding that the Divine is doing the serving. As in the earthly life of Jesus, so now, He comes “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). The “service” is not found on page five or fifteen; the service is found in the Son of God who comes to give His flesh for the life of the world. For that reason the Lutheran Confessions speak of faith as the highest worship of God (Ap IV:49, 57, 59, 155, 228). But what does faith do? It receives that which Christ desires to give.

The church indeed responds to these gifts with thanksgiving and praise, as it is meet, right, and salutary to do (Proper Preface). Through Christ, she continually offers up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name (Heb. 13:15). Her mouth is the golden censer which smokes forth the incense of prayers that swirl about the divine throne (Rev. 5:8). Nevertheless, she must not confuse her giving of thanks with the Lord’s giving of gifts. She needs Him but He does not stand in need of her. The Holy Trinity is not a jolly good fellow who lives for praise; rather, because He lives and gives us His own life, we praise.

The liturgy as God’s activity for us defines the place of hymnody in the Divine Service. Like the rest of the liturgy, hymns are primarily channels of divine gifts, and only secondarily vocalizations of human gratitude. As St. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). The word of Christ — not the word of man — richly dwells within the church in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. And where the word of Christ is, there Christ Himself is, doling out His blood–bought gifts. So it is vital not just that a congregation sing hymns which are technically error–free; the hymns must proclaim Christ and His benefits, in a word, the Gospel. A hymn may say everything which is true about my thanks, my praise, and my glorifying of Christ, but if such hymns take center stage, the law has shoved aside the Gospel, and my doing has overshadowed the doing of Jesus.

What Makes a Hymn a Lutheran Hymn?

Scholars estimate that in America alone there have been more than 1,500,000 hymns published in approximately 4,700 hymnals. That means, for instance, that the hymns which made the cut for Lutheran Worship (520 in number) comprise a mere 0.0003 {3/10,000ths} of that total number. The world is flooded with hymns, but as with any flood, there is a lot of trash and raw sewage floating around in the water. Not all is safe for churchly consumption.

To inquire after what makes a hymn a Lutheran hymn is to ask what theological and musical criteria must be met before one of those 1.5 million hymns is sanctified for us in the Divine Service. Such an inquiry is more art than science, more like contemplating a work of art than computing a correct answer on an arithmetic quiz. The criteria listed below is limited in scope, but is meant to start us down the right path toward determining what makes a hymn truly Lutheran.

Criterion 1: A Lutheran hymn aims not to create the right atmosphere or mood for worship, but serves as a vehicle for the Spirit–filled Word of God.

The American culture is permeated with the sounds of music. Businesses have taken advantage of the situation by harnessing various styles of music in their effort to sell products. Every store in the mall is piping through its speakers a different rhythm or style of music, the intent of which is to conceive in the hearers a buying mood. In that context, the goal of the music is emotional or psychological. Its intent is to create an atmosphere in which the clientele will feel comfortable shopping.

This approach to marketing has proven effective. The marriage between music and commercialization does indeed work in the secular realm. It works so well, in fact, that many within the church are tempted to use music and hymnody to “sell” the Gospel, to prepare the “potential consumers” in the pew for a “faith–transaction.” For example, in the introduction to The Other Song Book, Dave Anderson quotes approvingly this paragraph by the Rev. Dick Hamlin:

Music prepares the heart for worship and commitment. Music is the greatest mood alternator of all, and unlocks the ministry of God in the untrespassed soil of a person’s soul. People love singing. They love being moved even when there is not a song in their hearts.(2)

Harold Senkbeil provides a lucid commentary on these words:

Note what is being said here and what is not being said. Holy Scripture declares that it is the Word of the Lord that prepares the heart for worship and commitment. Here the claim is that music is a substitute Means of Grace, unlocking the human heart for God. No mention is made of the Means God has appointed as channels for His activity. No mention of music as a vehicle for the Divine Word. Rather, God’s action in equated with mood changes. The claim is that since people “love being moved,” the function of Christian music is to move them; whatever works.(3)

Given Dave Anderson’s subjective, emotion–centered approach to the role of music and hymnody in worship, it comes as no surprise to discover within The Other Songbook songs and hymns which have repeatedly been excluded from Lutheran hymnals due to their inability to serve the purpose of all Lutheran hymnody: to bear the Word of God to the congregation.

Theologians have long extolled the benefits of clothing the best of theology in the dress of the finest poetry. St. John Chrysostom (c. 345–407) once stated:

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure, wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness, He mixed melody with prophecy so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wing, sets it free from the earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom and to condemn all things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.(4)

St. Basil the Great (c. 330–379) echoed Chrysostom in these words:

Now the prophets teach certain things, the Historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorializes history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings. The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.(5)

What Saints Chrysostom and Basil note has been the consistent observation of the Christian church: that the word wedded to music is a beautiful and powerful means to give memorable expression to the most profound truths of theology. For example, Christians who are unacquainted with the technical theological language of the hypostatic union of the two nature s in Christ (unio personalis), have sung the same truth in hymns such as this one:

Upon a manger filled with hay
In poverty content He lay
With milk was fed the Lord of all,
Who feeds the ravens when they call. (TLH 104)

Or if they have not sung that hymn, then certainly they have this one:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell;
Jesus our Immanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!” (TLH 94)

The intent of such hymns is not to alter moods or create atmospheres, to massage the emotional state of a worshiper into a posture of spiritual openness, but to deliver the gifts of Christ. They bear the resemblance of a sermon shrunk in length, rhymed, and set to music. Many a hymn preaches more in four stanzas than a pastor struggles to say in six pages of a sermon text. And in the preaching of the hymn, the Spirit is at work through the Word to rebuke and console, pierce and heal through the law and Gospel.

Criterion 2: A Lutheran hymn is not entertainment but proclamation.

The goliath music entertainment industry towers over the American cultural landscape and, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a Davidic hero about to bring it down. This industry has radically transformed the way people view the purpose of music and song. Music as entertainment certainly has its place in a society, but increasingly its function solely as entertainment overshadows all other functions. Music has traditionally been used in education and other fields not with the goal of entertainment but enhancement of learning and memorization. Over the past half century, however, music has become largely a source of everything from titillation to exploitation. The quality of such songs is gauged not by their beauty or truth content, but the emotional effect and appeal they have upon the masses. And often the appeal of such lyrics and music is to the basest of passions in sinful man.

With such widespread use of music solely for entertainment purposes, it was only a matter of time before some within the church hopped onto the bandwagon. The attempt is made in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), for instance, to utilize the secular sounds one would hear on the radio or MTV to convey a Christian message. Leaving aside the fact that this message is commonly a heterodox message, what can be said for or against the express intent of CCM? Commenting on the mixture of language to and about God with language to and about man, Kantor Richard Resch points out the dire results emanating from this union of sacred and secular:

Examples of that confused language are plentiful in Contemporary Christian Music, in the popular, experiential supplemental hymnals found in many Lutheran pews, in the gimmicky Vacation Bible School music, in school musicals that use religious themes, and in solo and choral music available from a host of publishers. If one heard this language from afar, minus text, one would never guess that it means to be faith language for it blatantly has its source in the musical expression of the world. However, the concern is not just a matter of music but has to do with the total expression. As early as 1985, Amy Grant said in a USA Today interview, “We prefer to be a little bit sneaky with the lyrics …  when you start getting churchy, they start running” [USA Today, Nov. 8, 1985]. After Miss Grant spoke of her fast–paced drumbeats, her “deafening screams” and her sensually oriented apparel, the reporter ended the interview by asking the reader the question, “This is gospel music?” In a 1986 magazine interview Miss Grant said, “There are songs that can go both ways. I call these God–girlfriend songs — meaning you are either singing it to God or to your boyfriend or girlfriend” [Charisma, July 7, 1986, p. 21].(6)

When words are so vague and rubbery as to be capable of addressing either “God” or my girlfriend, we are no longer singing to the Holy Trinity but to an idol. It seems Miss Grant — and many others — have failed not only in providing Christian music, but Christian words as well.

Lest, however, we suppose that the blending of the sacred and secular is a mere late twentieth century phenomenon, listen to Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 379) describe what was happening to the church in his day:

What belonged to the theater was brought into the church, and what belonged to the church into the theater. The better Christian feelings were held up in comedies to the sneer of the multitude. Everything was so changed into light jesting, that earnestness was stripped of its worth by wit, and that which is holy became a subject for banter and scoffing in the refined conversation of worldly people. Yet worse was it that the unbridled delight of these men in dissipating enjoyments threatened to turn the church into a theater, and the preacher into a play actor. If he would please the multitude, he must adapt himself to their taste, and entertain them amusingly in the church. They demanded also in the preaching something that should please the ear; and they clapped with the same pleasure the comedian in the holy place and him on the stage. And alas there were found at that period too many preachers who preferred the applause of men to their souls’ health.(7)

St. Gregory could well be speaking to a Central Texas Free Conference. Solomon is right: There is nothing new under the sun.

The appeal is made ad nauseum by the proponents of CCM and others who use music and song in the church for entertainment purposes, that the form of the music is neutral; it is the substance of the text that counts. Music, however, is never neutral. As Kantor Resch has written:

Music was respected as power [in the past]. The power was not questioned until the 1960s, when it was first argued that music is neutral. The argument was raised, not on the basis of any new findings, but in order to remove the fear of music so that it could be used with complete freedom. The argument could be defined as a battle of the ancients and traditionalists on one side and the materialists on the other. The ancients and traditionalists believe that music affects character and society, and therefore artists are to be responsibly moral and constructive, not immoral and destructive. The materialists disclaim responsibility and the need for value judgments, and therefore pay no heed to the outcome of their sounds. The materialists want to sell a product at any cost, and so they play with fire. But they must first convince their audience that playing with fire is harmless.(8)

Music is powerful, and as with any power, it is capable of accomplishing good or evil purposes. When entertainment music is wrapped around Christian lyrics — even if those lyrics are orthodox — the truth is obscured. The secular overtones of the music overpower the sacred claims of the text.

The purpose of hymnody within the liturgy is not to put on such a grand performance that the congregation rises to its feet with feverish hand–clapping. The hymns proclaim a divine message, which is not entertaining, but sustaining, designed to feed the sojourning church as she makes her way through the world, but is not of the world. Entertainment has its place, but that place is outside the bounds of the church.

Criterion 3: A Lutheran hymn is not experiential or sentimental (theology of glory), but objective and sturdy (theology of the cross).

The theology of the Lutheran church is a theology of the cross. This means not only that we preach Christ crucified, but that the crucifix is the lens through which we view all of God’s dealings with us. In the sacrifice of the body of Jesus, God was hiding Himself in order that He might reveal Himself through what seemed most ungodly or “ungod–like.” God revealed His glory, His love, and His will to save within what the human mind rejected as offensive or unbecoming of divinity. And so St. Paul says,

For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God (1 Cor. 1:18, 27–29).

The cross thus shapes the sacramental and liturgical life of the church as well. The plain, ordinary, earthly elements of water, bread, and wine are the masks behind which Christ is present. Human words spoken by a common man are the vehicles of the Spirit’s work. These are the means of the cross, the bearers of divine gifts which come from outside man and enter into him by objective channels. Because God is so hidden and unseen in this, faith is required to believe and receive that which God is proffering.

The theology of glory, however, turns its gaze away from the outside–of–me Gospel and Sacraments, to the inner experience of the Spirit or the outward manifestations of God’s might or sovereignty. The theology of glory looks for God where man assumes God should be found, not where He has promised to be. The glory–theologian thus treasures supposed experiences of God, where he “feels” the divine presence. His conversion–experience replaces the objectivity of Holy Baptism and the whispering of the inner “still, quiet voice of God” trumps the public preaching of the Gospel.

How does a glory–theologian speak of worship and the purpose of hymnody within that context? Here is how Kirk Hadaway defines a worship service and its goals:

A worship service is a dynamic mix of congregational singing, prayer, choir anthems, announcements, ritual, testimony, liturgy, solos, instrumentals, organ music, a sermon, an offering, Scripture reading, sitting, standing, and interacting with persons seated nearby. Some churches may add to this mix other elements such as a children’s sermon, drama, clapping and swaying to the music, “passing the peace,” a processional, a recessional, and so forth. The nature of this content, and its quality affects the character of worship in terms of meaning, enjoyment, boredom, excitement, morale, and whether one feels they have encountered God in the experience.(9)

There is a complete absence here of the divine work of God in His Word and Sacraments to bestow upon sinners the gifts of Jesus Christ. The “worship service” is a hodgepodge of primarily human activities designed to help the worshiper feel they have encountered God in the experience. Ostensibly, the more meaning, enjoyment, excitement, and morale the service generates, the more successful the worship–leaders are. Hymnody within this mix cannot but serve subjective ends.

Examples of glory–theology are widespread in the hymns included in The Other Songbook. The centrality of feelings is accented in “The Bond of Love” (260) and “Sometimes Alleluia” (188):

We are one in the bond of love;
We are one in the bond of love.
We have joined our spirit with the Spirit of God;
We are one in the bond of love.

Let us sing now, ev’ry one;
Let us feel His love begun.
Let us join our hands, that the world will know
We are one in the bond of love.


Sometimes, “Alleluia,”
Sometimes, “Praise the Lord.”
Sometimes gently singing,
Our hearts in one accord

Oh let us let our voices,
Look toward the sky and start to sing;
Oh let us feel His presence,
Let the sound of praises fill the air;
Oh let our joy be unconfined,
Let us sing with freedom unrestrained;
Oh let the Spirit overflow,
As we are filled from head to toe.

The ever popular “In the Garden” (The Other Song Book, 261) is a parade example of the sticky sweet romanticism and sentimentalism of the theology of glory:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me and He talks with me,

And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing. Chorus

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go through the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling. Chorus

A Lutheran hymn is not centered on the experience of man “falling in love” with God but the activity of a loving God on behalf of fallen man. And that divine activity is always hidden in, with, and under the Means of Grace — the Gospel and Sacraments — not feelings and garden–walks with imaginary Jesuses. One need not look far in Lutheran hymnody to find a plethora of examples of hymns which focus on the theology of the cross. Consider the hymn by Paul Speratus (1484–1531), “Salvation unto Us Has Come” (LW 355):

Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.

What God did in His law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the law requires,
And lost is our condition.

It was a false misleading dream
That God His law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.

Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Your death is now my life indeed,
For You have paid my ransom.

Man is here depicted as he truly is: one who stands under the ever–accusing Law, doomed to damnation, but redeemed by Christ, who makes full atonement for him. Man is not in need of “feeling” Jesus or experiencing an orgasmic spirituality full of emotional excitement. He needs the ransom, the grace, the death of Jesus. On that foundation, sturdy and enduring and objective, he builds.

Criterion 4: A Lutheran hymn is not doggerel but the finest of poetry.

In the Greek translation of Gen. 1:31, we read, “And God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was exceedingly beautiful (kala).” St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), in his exposition of the Psalms, wrote of how the beauty of God’s creation is an icon of the beauty of God:

The beauty of everything is in a way their voice by which they praise God. The sky …  the earth cry, You made me, not I. And as He made all things, and nothing is better than He is, whatever He made is less than He is. So do not let what He made please you so as to drag you away from Him who made them. If you love what He made, love much more Him who made them. If the things He made are beautiful, how much more beautiful is He who made them!(10)

The vestments of the Old Testament priesthood were “for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2, 40); the Messianic King is said to desire the beauty of His queen, the Church (Psalm 48:2); Christ, as the Branch of the Lord, is beautiful (Is. 4:2); and the psalmist asks from the Lord one thing: “That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to meditate in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Truly, Christ and His Church are beautiful and characterized by philokalia, that is, love of the beautiful.

Those who design churches, sew vestments, and paint ecclesial art must be filled with philokalia. They must love that which is full of beauty, for who among us desires an ugly church, an ugly alb, or an ugly portrait of our Lord? Philokalia, however, is not restricted to the eyes; the ears, too, long to hear that which is beautiful. Those who compose and play music, those who sing, and those who author hymnody must strive to play, sing, and write that which exudes beauty. Stale words, wheezing music, and stuttering rhythm may be produced by the most sincere of Christians, but it has no place in the liturgy of the church.

There is an ever–present temptation to settle for second– or third–rate hymnody in the church. The hymn writer Martin Franzmann, in a Reformation sermon entitled “Theology Must Sing” (referenced earlier), addressed this temptation. His words are worth quoting at length:

[T]here has always been a terrible fascination in Ersatz [i.e., something of inferior quality], especially for a sick church, a church grown so languid that it cannot bear to live in the tension of the last days. And so we have, instead of the splendid picture of the church universal making a full–throated, joyful noise unto the Lord, the picture of the weary church sitting in a padded pew, weeping softly and elegantly into a lace handkerchief.

And the amazing thing is how eloquent men can grow in defense of this shoddy Ersatz hymnody. They begin by criticizing the good hymns as “hard to sing.” One might ask in return, Why must a hymn be easy? Who has ever said that it should be easy? Look at that woodcut of Albrecht Dürer’s where he depicts that scene from the Apocalypse in which those that came from the great tribulation, who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, sing their heavenly song. Look at those faces, their intensity of concentration, faces almost contorted with the energy of their devotion, if you would know what singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord really means.

The fact that there is an amazing agreement on the part of hymnodists and musicians in all parts of the church as to what constitutes a good hymn counts for little with these critics. The hymnodist’s passion for perfection is viewed with suspicion, as a sort of professional snobbery, and is usually countered with, “I don’t know much about it, but I know what I like.” That is really the ultimate in snobbery. To pit my piping, squeaking, little ego against all the good gifts that God has given His church! It is worse than snobbery; it is ingratitude. It is as though God had led us out into His great, wide world and shown us ripe, waving fields of grain and said to us, “Here is bread, and all for you.” It is as though God had shown us all the cattle on a thousand hills and said to us, “Here is milk and cheese and butter and meat for you” and we then replied: “No, thanks! It is not to my taste. I’d rather go to a messy, dusty, fly–infested county fair and eat cotton candy.

Another argument might be called the “tin whistle” argument. Its essence is something like this: “After all, a man can make music on a tin whistle to the glory of God, and God will be pleased to hear it.” True, true, true — if God has given him nothing but a tin whistle; but God has given us so infinitely much more. When He has given us all the instruments under heaven with which to sing His praises, then the tin whistle is no longer humility but a perverse sort of pride.

Perhaps the most insidious attack of all is the one that says: “Yes, these hymns are inferior, but we must use them as stepping stones to something better. We must use them to train up the people for the solid food of our best hymnody.” I am reminded here of a little poem on an artist who sold himself out, a poem that is not nearly as funny as it sounds:

He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits,
And the formula for drawing comic rabbits paid,
But in the end he could not change the habits
That the formula for drawing comic rabbits made.

We had better be careful about indulging in such condescension, lest we too find the comic rabbits too powerful for us.(11)

The tin whistle instruments, cotton candy doctrine, and comic rabbit poetry infesting much of modern Lutheran worship are indicative not of philokalia — love of beauty — but a love of numerical growth or a chasing after the skirts of Lady Emotion. Note, for example, the blatant differences in form and content between these two Baptism hymns from This Far By Faith (“Have You Got Good Religion,” 113:1, 4) and Lutheran Worship (“To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord,” 223:5, 7):

(1) Have you got good religion?
Cert’nly, Lord!
Have you got good religion?
Cert’nly, Lord!
Have you got good religion?
Cert’nly, Lord!
Cert’nly, cert’nly, cert’nly, Lord!

(4) Have you been baptized?
Cert’nly, Lord!
Have you been baptized?
Cert’nly, Lord!
Have you been baptized?
Cert’nly, Lord!
Cert’nly, cert’nly, cert’nly, Lord!

 (5) To His disciples spoke the Lord,
“Go out to ev’ry nation,
And bring to them the living Word
And this My invitation:
Let ev’ryone abandon sin
And come in true contrition
To be baptized and thereby win
Full pardon and remission
And heav’nly bliss inherit.”

(7) All that the mortal eye beholds
Is water as we pour it.
Before the eye of faith unfolds
The pow’r of Jesus’ merit.
For here it sees the crimson flood
To all our ills bring healing;
The wonders of His precious blood
The love of God revealing,
Assuring His own pardon.

Lutheran hymnody must not only drip with true theology; it must also shine with the beauty of the finest possible language, form, and sound.

Criterion 5: A Lutheran hymn is not bound merely to paraphrase the biblical text; rather it interprets and expounds it in reference to Christ.

A few years after Dr. Luther and company were active in the reforming and writing of liturgy and hymnody in Germany, John Calvin and his followers engaged in a similar task in Geneva, Switzerland. One of the foremost scholars of hymnody in the 20th century, Erik Routley, describes how Calvin reconstructed worship in his revision of the Roman Mass:

Calvin’s Reformation was rigidly based on reason, and his church order rigidly founded on discipline. Calvin completely reconstructed worship, being not drawn to preserve as much of its antique and venerable beauty as Luther was. And although he insisted on congregational singing — and indeed allowed no other kind of singing in public worship — that singing was restricted to Psalms in metre, and such other Biblical passages as could readily go into metre, such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Canticles. So with one hand he gave the congregation not only the opportunity but the duty of singing together, and indeed its voice was the only other voice than his own heard in worship (no choir, no organ, no singing in harmony); but with the other he totally forbade any singing of words that were not Biblical.(12)

Calvin’s rigidity in the arena of hymnody set the tone for his theological heirs in the various Reformed churches for many years afterward. Metrical psalms were sung which contained no explicit reference to Jesus Christ, this despite the fact — attested to by Jesus Himself (e.g., Luke 24:44) — that the veins of the Psalms pulsate with the blood of Christ. They bear witness of Him and His salvific work on our behalf. Not until the Puritan hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674–1748), began to question the received Reformed hymnic tradition and to write Christological hymns, did this all begin to change. In contrast to Calvin and company, since Luther and his followers viewed the entire Scriptures as pointing to Christ, they hesitated not a moment to insert the name of Christ or Christian doctrine into a hymn based on an Old Testament psalm or other text, even though the original text did not explicitly mention the Messiah. Christ was their hermeneutic — their interpretive lens — through which they read the entire canon of Scripture. Paul Grime, in a study of Luther’s hymns, points out the impact that the Reformer’s Christ–centered stance had on his authorship of hymns:

When Luther encouraged [Georg] Spalatin to write hymns, he suggested that the Psalms be used as a model. Within the year, Luther had taken his own advice and written six hymns based on the Psalms. His instructions for transforming the Psalms into hymns were simple: “Maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words.” The six examples that we have from Luther’s pen show that in many cases Luther did cling to the words. His psalm hymns display a remarkable similarity to the original Psalms … [As the example from his hymn based on Psalm 128 reveals, however, Luther] is not opposed to reaching beyond the message of the individual Psalm in order to provide the soteriological teaching that is so prevalent throughout the psalter and all of Scripture.

Another of Luther’s hymns, “May God Bestow on Us His Grace,” will further illustrate this point … While the structure of Luther’s hymn mirrors that of the Psalm [67], there are also subtle differences that reveal how Luther intended for his hymns not only to bring the word of God to the people, but also to instill Christian teaching in them.(13)

Luther recognized that hymns based on the Old Testament psalter must proclaim the same message that sermons based on the psalter proclaim: that Christ is the content and fulfillment of the whole Old Testament.

A couple of examples from modern hymnals will serve to illustrate how the Christocentric hermeneutic of Luther has and has not influenced the authors of metrical psalm paraphrases. Psalm 72 describes the extent and characteristics of the messianic reign. Isaac Watts begins his paraphrase of this psalm with the first word providing the interpretation of the entire hymn:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does its successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more. (LW 312)

In contrast to Watts’ Christological interpretation of the psalm, the following hymn in This Far By Faith (208) — which in the Scripture References section claims to be based in Psalm 72 — not only misses the point of the psalm, it is entirely man–centered:

Oh, freedom,
oh, freedom,
oh freedom over me


And before I’d be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
and go home to my Lord and be free.

No more moaning,
no more moaning,
no more moaning over me,

There’ll be singing,
There’ll be singing,
There’ll be singing over me.

There’ll be shouting,
There’ll be shouting,
There’ll be shouting over me.

There’ll be praying,
There’ll be praying,
There’ll be praying over me.

Although not every metrical Psalm or Old Testament paraphrase need of necessity to include an explicit reference to Christ, the more the poet includes such references, the more Christ will be understood by the singer of such hymns as the One in whom all of God’s promises are “Yes!” (2 Cor. 1:20). In an age when a large number of biblical scholars deny that the Old Testament people believed in the Christ who was to come, and when a significant number of Christians fail to recognize that Christ is as central to the Old Testament as He is to the New Testament, it becomes increasingly incumbent upon those who write new hymnody and those who decide which hymns will be included in new hymnals, to compose or choose hymns which boldly and clearly point to Jesus as the central hope of believers since the Fall of man.

Criterion 6: A Lutheran hymn is bound to no culture except the culture of the church catholic.

One of the primary criticisms of Lutheran hymnody is that it is too Germanic or to “out of touch” with modern tastes in music and song. The claim is made that if the church is to attract new members, she must adopt the musical forms and sounds which are popular in the American culture. As is well known, a key argument of the Church Growth Movement is that as people “shop” for a church, they are looking for worship where they “feel at home,” where the music is not radically different from what they are accustomed to listening to on the radio all week long. In other words, if they remove their shoes during worship, it won’t be because they realize they are standing on holy ground, but because they feel as comfortable in the “worship facility” as they do reclining in front of a stereo system in their living room.

In the following two quotes, Timothy Wright, a pastor at the Community Church of Joy in Phoenix and author of the book, A Community of Joy: How to Create Contemporary Worship, comments on the necessity of choosing the “right” music for a culturally sensitive service and the supposed impediments to growth which are inherent in liturgical music:

Contemporary music — pop, rock, country–western, rap — continues to be the heart music of today’s generations. As people shop for a church, they look for congregations that value them by valuing their music. In designing worship service attractive to today’s generations, no factor has greater impact than the choice of music.(14)

Liturgical worship uses classically oriented music … However, classical music accounts for only two percent of all music sold in the United States. A very small segment of the population listens to it … The generations born after 1946 have forever changed the course of music. By far, their number one music preference is adult contemporary — the heart language of today’s generations. They will not develop a craving for classical music as they age, nor will they mature into it. They will rock and roll to their graves.(15)

Walt Kallestad, author of Entertainment Evangelism: Taking the Church Public, states the matter quite simply when he explains that he chooses music for worship that is “similar to the kinds of music people listen to all week long.”(16)

There are multiple fallacies in these opinions. First, classic Lutheran hymnody is not Germanic; it is confessional and ecumenical, catholic in the truest and best sense of the term. In The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, W. G. Polack, the chairman of The Lutheran Hymnal committee and a professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, describes the wide range of sources used in the creation of TLH. After pointing out that TLH will be used not only in America, but also Canada, England, Africa, China, India, New Zealand, and South America, Polack notes:

A careful study of The Lutheran Hymnal will show that, including the carols and spiritual songs, it contains 313 original hymns and 347 translations. The translations are divided as follows: From the German, 248; from the Latin, 46; from the Scandinavian, 31; from the Greek, 9; from the Slovak, 6; from the French, 2; from the Italian, 2; from the Dutch, Welsh, and Finnish, each 1. The original hymns may be classified as follows: British, 267; American, 45; Canadian, 1. The translators are as follows: American, 47; British, 42. These numbers are interesting. They indicate that the editorial committee covered a wide field in search of hymns suitable for inclusion in The Lutheran Hymnal without losing sight of the fact that the hymnal must be thoroughly Lutheran in content.(17)

Polack also helpfully points out that the tunes used in TLH are also truly catholic: “The composers classify as follows: American, 18; British, 59; German, 58; Scandinavian, 4; French, 3; Italian, 2; and Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and Slovak, each 1.”(18) Lutheran liturgy and Lutheran hymnody belong to the culture of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, not the German or American or African culture.

The second fallacy is that the purpose of worship is to attract unbelievers. The problem is quite straightforward: unbelievers cannot worship. As St. Paul asks, “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:14). The Divine Service is for the faithful, that they might be gathered by the Spirit to receive the gifts of the Father in the flesh of His Son. It is the worship of the church, the Body of Christ, outside of which are all unbelievers. Although it is our fervent wish and desire that unbelievers be present in the Divine Service — where they will most certainly hear the Gospel (the evangel) — the Divine Service is not for the purpose of evangelism. As David Truemper has memorably said, “An understanding of the church based on CA VII [Augsburg Confession VII] leads to the conviction that we do not worship in order to gain converts but rather we evangelize in order to gain worshipers.”(19) Evangelism and catechesis are the proper areas for bringing the Gospel to unbelievers, not a seeker–sensitive service.

The third fallacy is that the music of worship ought to be “similar to the kinds of music people listen to all week long.”(20) First of all, the multiple styles of music listened to by Americans is not so easily classified as “traditional,” “contemporary,” or “blended,” as is commonly done in Church Growth literature. Classical music, jazz, blues, folk, rock, pop, county–western, rap, new age, and ethnic music styles are not easily squeezed into one of three categories. The “kinds of music people listen to all week long” is so varied, that if a church wanted to cater to those who prefer one style over another, at least ten services would be offered every Sunday! Secondly, this fallacy completely disregards the theological function of music in worship, reducing musical selection to a mere matter of taste. Robin Leaver describes the character and purpose of the music used in the Divine Service:

It’s function is to proclaim the word of God to the people. Sometimes this is done through the single voice of the cantor or minister, sometimes through the combined voice of choir and instruments, and sometimes through instrumental music alone. And then there is that unique proclamation of the whole people of God when they join their voices in one, in psalmody and hymnody, as they proclaim their response of faith to God and give witness of that faith to each other. All the Church’s great composers have understood the proclamatory nature of their art, that through it the eternal sound of God’s grace focused in Jesus Christ is made known and shared with His redeemed people.(21)

Liturgical music is always a servant of the text, carrying the Word of God into people’s heart through the beauty and dignity of melody.

Rather than constantly marrying and divorcing one musical style after another in the ever changing secular culture, the Church has developed and maintained her own music in her own culture, a culture of historic depth and present vitality. Hers is a counterculture, a culture whose ideals, beliefs, and purposes run contrary to the vast array of secular cultures in which she sojourns. It is a culture of the holy, where her hymnody gives witness to the presence of the Holy Trinity in her midst and she in His. Be not misled: the church’s culture is not static and stagnant, but vivacious, throbbing with life, for hers is the culture of real, abiding life in the Living God. Each generation adds a few new strokes to the aged portrait she has been painting for millennia, but they do not scrap it all to begin anew. As Daniel Zager has written:

For the church to use countercultural music is simply to rely upon the full multiplicity of the church’s traditions, and to draw on the music created by the church’s finest living composers. To call on the church to use countercultural music is to state emphatically that the church’s music is not to be rooted in the music of adult contemporary or soft rock radio stations, but that it is to be rooted in the church’s own vital and varied traditions, of both the distant and the very recent past … Drawing on the full spectrum of the church’s varied musical traditions, both historic and current, is very different from offering the people of our parishes country–western services, polka services, or adult contemporary, easy listening, soft rock–influenced styles. The latter is particularly in favor these days, and is perhaps particularly misguided, for it fails to engender that sense of holy ground. Indeed, it seeks to do just the opposite — to bring the predominate musical culture into the sanctuary, where, instead of encountering “the profound mystery of God’s presence in our midst,” as [Harold] Senkbeil terms it, the music points us back only to ourselves, to our favorites from an entertainment, “feel good” culture.(22)

A Lutheran hymn is, therefore, bound to no culture except the culture of the church catholic, the church which sings:

God Himself is present:
Let us now adore Him
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple —
All within keep silence,
Prostrate lie with deepest rev’rence.
Him alone God we own,
Him, our God and Savior;
Praise His name forever. (TLH 4)

not the church which sings:

I’m so glad I’m present
To massage that feeling
That just sends my heart a–reeling.

I’m so full of rapture
That I feel like clapping
While the choir of youth are rapping

Give me rock, give me roll
God must be just like me
Wholly ordinary.

The criteria listed and explained above to determine what makes a hymn a Lutheran hymn is only a sampling of the many questions which one must ask of any hymn before it is welcomed into the service of the thrice–holy God. With these criteria as our guide, we now move to an exploration of past and present hymnody in the LCMS.

III. Hymnody in the LCMS: Yesterday and Today

In an article entitled, “Lutherisches Kirchengesangbuch,” which appeared in the June 15, 1847, issue of Der Lutheraner, C. F. W. Walther described the criteria which he and his associates used in determining which hymns would be included in the Kirchengesangbuch fuer Evangelish–Lutherisch Gemeinden ungeaenderter Augsburgisher Confession, the first official hymnal of the LCMS:

In the selection of the adopted hymns the chief consideration was that they be pure in doctrine; that they have found almost universal acceptance within the orthodox German Lutheran Church and have thus received the almost universal testimony that they have come forth from the true spirit [of Lutheranism]; that they express not so much the changing circumstances of individual persons but rather contain the language of the whole church, because the book is to be used primarily in public worship; and finally that they, though bearing the imprint of Christian simplicity, be not merely rhymed prose but the creation of a truly Christian poetry.(23)

Later, in 1885, in a review of the concordance for the Kirchengesangbuch in Der Lutheraner, Walther echoes the same concern for orthodox doctrine clad in the best of poetry.(24)

In a proper and pure public service of worship it is not only fitting and necessary that the preacher preach only God’s pure Word, but also that the congregation sing only pure hymns. This latter point is so necessary and is without doubt a matter of the greatest importance: that the preacher choose good hymns, and allow them to be sung, which properly prepares for the hearing of the Word of God and best serves to preserve and seal the Word already heard.

This same zeal for pure doctrine in liturgy and hymnody was reflected in the 1854 constitution of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and other States, where, under Chapter II, “Conditions Under Which Union With The Synod May Take Place And Fellowship With It May Continue,” we read: “The exclusive use of doctrinally pure church and school books (agendas, hymnbooks, catechisms, textbooks, etc.).”(25) Carl Schalk makes this observation about the traditional stance of the LCMS regarding hymnody:

From the earliest years, the two motifs of Missouri Synod hymnody were an evangelical concern for a confessionally orthodox hymnody coupled with a vital concern for the rhythmic form of the chorale melody. These two motifs consistently appeared as the Missouri Synod defended its own confessional position against what it considered the more lax position of other Lutherans, as it offered criticism of hymnals of other Lutheran groups, and as it attempted to chart a course in the transition to an English language hymnody. On the one hand, these concerns often prevented the Missouri Synod from cooperating or participating in common hymnological endeavors with other Lutherans who, they {believed}, did not share their strong convictions in matters of hymnody. On the other hand, these concerns for congregational song preserved for American Lutheranism the heritage of Reformation hymnody, both texts and melodies, in a way that did not find similar expression among other Lutheran bodies.(26)

This theological and musical foundation laid by Walther and others provided their heirs in the 20th century with a sturdy base upon which to build. From the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn Book of 1912 (the LCMS’s first official English hymnbook) to The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 (the hymnbook of the Synodical Conference) to Lutheran Worship of 1982 to Hymnal Supplement ’98, the LCMS continued the hymnic tradition of confessional Lutheranism. Although none of these hymnals are flawless — can there be such a thing as an ideal hymnal? — those who labored in their compilation are to be applauded for the herculean task they undertook and the quality of the hymnals they placed in the hands of God’s people.

But The Lutheran Hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and Hymnal Supplement ’98 are not the only hymnals or songbooks occupying the pew racks of LCMS congregations. Beside them have slithered such unofficial texts as The Other Songbook, Lutheran Book of Worship, and (as we will soon see in some parishes) This Far By Faith. In addition, book length bulletins are often littered with various songs and hymns from Maranatha! Music or some other source of CCM. Nearly a decade ago (1991), a survey found that 32% of LCMS congregations use TLH, 49% use LW, and 7.9% use LBW. In addition, the survey found that “supplemental hymnals are the most frequently used hymnals in 11% of synodical parishes.” In 1996, a similar survey found that 46 to 49% use TLH, 61 to 63% use LW, and 8 to 12% use LBW and The Other Song Book. In other words, the diversity of hymnal use within the LCMS is not lessening. Indeed, were one able to survey the regularity with which many Lutheran parishes use the copy machine or the overhead projector as their “virtual hymnal,” the diversity noted above would doubtlessly multiply exponentially. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall, and it remains to be seen if anything can be done to put him back together again. As is clear to any observer of LCMS worship today, the same caution which Walther, et al., exercised in their selection of hymns for the Kirchengesangbuch is not exercised by an increasing number of pastors and musicians who select music, hymnody, and hymnals for their parishes.

The heated squabbles over This Far By Faith (TFBF) are indicative of a growing recklessness regarding the exclusive use of doctrinally pure hymnbooks in our churches. In the Preface to TFBF, we read that the hymnal was “originally conceived as a concept paper by African–American Lutherans within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in 1990 … The dream for the project took shape in 1993 when a small exploratory committee was formed of representatives from both the LCMS … and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America … The dream for an African–American worship resource that would supplement the principal worship books of the churches continued to develop,” issuing finally in the publication of TFBF in 1999. Along the way to its publication, however, large portions of the liturgies and hymnody were rejected by the LCMS’s doctrinal review board. David Mahsman reported that the first doctrinal review report on the supplement, released last June [1998], failed large parts of the liturgical section and 30 of the 370 hymns submitted. Serious questions were raised about others. The editorial committee responded with revisions of some material, deletion or defense of other material and answers to reviewers’ questions. But when the final report from the team of five anonymous reviewers arrived in December, the number of hymns that failed to receive doctrinal certification had doubled to 60. In the end, the hymnal was published only by the ELCA’s publishing house, Augsburg Fortress. In his July 1, 1999, address to the Black Ministry Family Convocation, LCMS President A. L. Barry spoke of the rejection of TFBF and encouraged fidelity to doctrinally pure hymnbooks:

On the one hand, it would be totally impossible for the President of Synod to approve this hymnal for general use in the congregations since the doctrinal review process of Synod has not approved it. In that connection, I must go on record to encourage all of our congregations to respect that aspect of the covenant that binds us together under Article VI of Synod’s Constitution which indicates that members in our Synod are to make “exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymn books, and catechisms in church and school.”

On the other hand, at the same time, I am fully aware of the fact that there are certain hymns and portions of this hymnal that could be used as viable resources by our pastors and our people. But to use this hymnal as the basic hymnal in our congregations would be inappropriate in view of the decision reached by the doctrinal review process. Now I recognize that in saying all this, there are many who will be unhappy with this decision. But I am firmly convinced that this is the correct counsel that I must give to Synod in this connection.(27)

Some African–American church leaders within the LCMS have responded to the rejection of TFBF with claims to the contrary. David Mahsman reports the following:

The Synod’s Constitution includes “exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms in church and school” as a condition of LCMS membership. Some of those who helped develop the African–American hymnal supplement say that their book is in accord with Scripture and the Confessions, regardless of what the doctrinal reviewers may say. The problem, they say, is insensitivity to culture. “I feel the supplement as it will be published is okay doctrinally,” Marshall said. “Nothing there will wreck the faith of any individual by singing those hymns.” “It’s an incredibly Lutheran book,” Nunes told Reporter. Dr. Bryant Clancy Jr., executive director of the Synod’s Board for Black Ministry Services and a member of the supplement steering and editorial committees, said that the doctrinal reviewers simply don’t understand the African–American culture.(28)

Was the rejection of TFBF merely a matter of cultural misunderstanding? Can the theology of a hymn be heterodox in one culture and orthodox in another? Can TFBF possibly be “an incredibly Lutheran book” when it contains “Kum ba yah” (43), “All to Jesus I Surrender” (235), “Let Us Break Bread Together” (123), “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” (298), “Have You Got Good Religion” (113), “I’ve Decided to Make Jesus My Choice” (236), “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” (258), and a host of other weak or theologically questionable hymns?

The controversies swirling about TFBF regarding the relationship between theology and the African–American culture are of a piece with the controversies (spoken of above) between theology and the American pop culture. In both cases, the culture of the church is all too often ignored in order to cater to a specific ethnic or secular culture. The church, however, is not white, black, or Hispanic; it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Whether a hymn is from Martin Luther, Amy Grant, or an anonymous 19th century slave, it must stand under the scrutiny of the Word of God and the churchly culture formed and nourished by that Word.

IV. The Future of Hymnody in the LCMS: Where Do We Go from Here?

The Presbyterian William M. Taylor (1829–1895) correctly summarized the purpose served by a church’s hymnal, when he stated that a “hymnal reflects the history of the church, embodies the doctrine of the church, expresses the devotional life of the church, and demonstrates the unity of the church.” History, doctrine, devotion, unity: if all of these are embodied in a church’s prayer book or hymnal, it stands to reason that both pastors and laymen have in that text one of the richest possible resources for liturgical life together and alone. And if the majority of hymns contained in that hymnal represent some of the finest Christian theology and poetry ever written, it also stands to reason that those hymns ought to be sung not only in the church, but at home, in the hospital, in catechesis, in the parochial school, and in every other situation where the Word of God needs to be heard. The more we understand why we sing what we sing, the more we will want to sing those divine words.

Below are four practical suggestions of how, both as pastors and as laymen, we can feast more heartily upon Lutheran hymnody and whet the appetites of others to join us.

First, we must choose the best of Lutheran hymnody to sing in the Divine Service, not just congregational favorites or the most familiar hymns.

Despite the superior quality of our hymnals, we must also admit that not every hymn in TLH or LW is the best in Lutheran hymnody. For example, a theological analysis of the hymn “Amazing Grace” (LW 509) reveals that even though grace is supposed to be amazing, the hymn never tells the singer why. There is no mention of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit; no mention of what the grace is based on; no contrast of grace with human effort; no mention of our Savior Jesus Christ, His cross, resurrection, or any other part of His work of salvation! In contrast, the hymn “By Grace I’m Saved” (LW 351) includes all of these. Although “Amazing Grace,” is far more popular and familiar to American ears, if faced with the option of singing it or “By Grace I’m Saved,” the latter should be chosen. The dried bread of the former will work no spiritual harm, but neither will it help them as much as the meat of the latter. If the best of Lutheran hymnody is largely unknown to the congregation, the use of choirs, hymns of the month–season, etc., are excellent means to introduce them to the congregation.

Second, we must teach the purpose and theology of Lutheran hymns.

The more our culture is inundated with the mistaken notion that music and song exist solely or primarily as entertainment; the more our congregational members are exposed via the radio and television to the musical and theological aberrations of pan–evangelicalism; the more some within our Synod encourage the use of songs to create the right mood for worship, the more we must teach why we sing what we sing. Opportunities abound in the weekly life of almost any congregation for such teaching to take place. In adult and junior catechesis, hymns can be used to illustrate the content of the catechism and show how the faith of the church is expressed in the Divine Service. Hymns provide excellent materials for study in Bible classes, meetings, and in various auxiliary groups. Sermons can be preached on hymns which are based on the assigned pericopes of the Sunday. Parochial school teachers also have abundant opportunities to teach hymnody to their students.

Third, hymns are excellent resources for private pastoral care.

In shut–in calls, hospital visits, and routine pastoral calls to congregational members, the hymns of the church provide a wealth of material for devotion and prayer. Depending upon the context and the vocal ability of the pastor, the hymns may be sung or spoken. On numerous occasions in my own pastoral care, members have expressed their deep appreciation for the comfort they derived from the words of a hymn which I read or sang to them. The appreciation they express in that private context often leads to a greater appreciation of the hymnody used in the Divine Service.

Fourth, we must encourage the use of hymns in family and personal meditations.

Both TLH and LW (as well as HS98) include brief liturgies (e.g., Matins, Vespers, Evening Prayer, Responsive Prayer I–II) which are easily adaptable to family or personal meditations. During such meditations, the hymn of the week or another appropriate hymn may be sung. We often forget that Dr. Luther encouraged this in the Small Catechism, in the instructions for daily prayer in the morning. After making the sign of the cross with the invocation, praying the Creed, the Our Father, and Luther’s Morning Prayer, you ought to “go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.”

V. Conclusion

Why do we sing what we sing as Lutherans? Because, as Wilhelm Loehe wrote in his Three Books about the Church, “The true faith is expressed not only in the sermon but is also prayed in the prayers and sung in the hymns.”(29) The Holy Spirit, who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, also keeps that church with Jesus Christ in the one true faith, the one true faith which is sung. Theology must sing. So let us sing, now and ever, and unto ages of ages, unto the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


1 Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: Sermons by Martin H. Franzmann. St. Louis: CPH, 1994, 92.

2 The Other Song Book, compiled by Dave Anderson. Phoeniz, AZ: Fellowship Publications, 1987.

3 “Current Trends in Church Music: Toward a Theological Appraisal.” Delivered at Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, Wisconsin. Unpublished paper.

4 Quoted in Music in Early Christian Literature, James McKinnon. Cambridge: University Press, 1987, 81.

5 Music in Early Christian Literature, 65–66.

6 Quoted in “Church Music at the Close of the Twentieth Century: The Entanglement of Sacred and Secular,” Richard C. Resch, Logia II, no. 2, 1993, 23.

7 Prolegomena, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Vol. III: Nicene and Post–Nicene Father of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955, 196.

8 “Music: Gift of God or Tool of the Devil,” Logia III, no. 2, 1994, 35.

9 Church Growth Principles: Separating Fact from Fiction. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991, 65.

10 Quoted in Philokalia: The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1998, 11–12.

11 Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, 95–96.

12 Christian Hymns Observed: When in Our Music God is Glorified. Princeton, NJ: Prestige Publications, 1982, 19–20

13 “Lutheran Hymnody: Is It Possible or Even Necessary Anymore?” Logia III, no. 2, 1994, 10.

14 A Community of Joy: How to Create Contemporary Worship, Effective Church Series. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994, 22.

15 Community of Joy, 30.

16 Walt Kallestad, Entertainment Evangelism: Taking the Church Public. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, 64.

17 The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, W. G. Polack. St. Louis: CPH, 1942, XI.

18 Handbook, XII.

19 David G. Truemper, “Evangelism: Liturgy versus Church Growth,” Lutheran Forum 24/1, Lent, February 1991, 32.

20 Entertainment Evangelism, 64.

21 The Theological Character of Music in Worship, Church Music Pamphlet Series, ed. Carl Schalk. St. Louis: CPH, 1989, 11.

22 “Holy Ground and Countercultural Music: Or, Save the Polkas for Saturday Night,” Through the Church the Song Goes On: Preparing a Lutheran Hymnal for the 21st Century, eds. P. Grime, D. R. Stuckwisch, J. Vieker. St. Louis: CPH, 1999, 119–120.

23 Quoted in God’s Song in a New Land: Lutheran Hymnals in America, Carl F. Schalk. St. Louis: CPH, 1995, 129.

24 Quoted in God’s Song, 130.

25 Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, ed. Carl S. Meyer. St. Louis: CPH, 1964, 150.

26 God’s Song, 130.

27 July 15, 1999. This quote is taken from the LCMS website:

28 Quoted by Robert Sauer in “Lutheran Worship: The Special Hymnal Review Committee,” Lutheran Worship: History and Practice. St. Louis: CPH, 1993, 131.

29 Three Books About the Church, trans. J. L. Schaaf. Ft. Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1989, 179.